ANDERSON — Next time you go camping, pack an oven — a Dutch oven, that is.
Camping Dutch ovens are designed with three feet to raise them off the ground so that coals can be placed underneath. They have a rimmed lid to hold coals in place on top.
As a rule of thumb, you’ll need about twice as many coals on the top as you do on the bottom.
Jill Vance, an interpretive naturalist at Monroe Lake in southern Indiana, hosts campfire cooking classes at the lake.
Class participants cook a full meal over a campfire, including Dutch oven baking. Class size is limited to eight, lasts about three hours and fills up fast.
What size oven should someone buy?
“That really kind of depends on how many people they’re going to be cooking for and what they plan on cooking,” Vance said.
Ovens are sized by their diameter; a 12-inch, 6-quart oven is a popular size. If you’re cooking for only a few people or plan on using it just for sides or dessert, consider a smaller 10-inch, 4-quart oven.
Accessories include a lid lifter, a lid stand to give you a place to set a hot lid once it’s removed, a shovel for retrieving coals from the fire or a chimney starter if you’re using briquettes, and a steel cooking table if you want to get your oven off the ground.
You can also buy parchment or aluminum liners, or you can make your own with a roll of aluminum foil.
You’ll need a roll wide enough to line the oven with one piece. When you’re done cooking, remove it and the oven will still be clean.
It can also make it easier to remove some dishes from the oven.
“Brownies in a Dutch oven are really good, and it’s a lot easier to cut and serve the brownies if you can lift the whole thing out and set it to the side,” said Vance.
Her advice to first-time Dutch oven bakers is to start simple.
“If your experience with campfire cooking up to this point has just been hot dogs on sticks, don’t dive in and try to do a whole meal cooked in Dutch ovens. Try one dish,” Vance said.
As part of the Department of Natural Resources’s efforts to create virtual programming, Vance recently demonstrated a dump cake recipe on Facebook Live, which is good for beginners.
You will need one can of pie filling, a box of cake mix, a can of soda and butter.
“Pour the pie filling in the bottom, sprinkle the cake mix on top, pour the soda over that and then dot it with butter,” Vance said.
Cook at around 350 degrees Fahrenheit for about a half-hour.
If you cook with coals from a wood fire, it will take some experience to figure out temperature. But if you use charcoal briquettes, it turns out there’s an app for that.
“You just put in the size of your Dutch oven and what temperature you want to bake, and it will tell you how many briquettes to put on the top and how many to put on the bottom,” Vance said.
It’s still not an exact science. The app can’t account for wind, and a breezy day could keep the oven from reaching the desired temperature.
If you’re using coals from your campfire, Vance suggests being careful about using too many.
“You’ve got to learn it’s better to cook slightly lower and longer. If you get that rule in mind you can cook with wood, you don’t have to worry about being exact.”
When you’re done cooking, avoid soap, if you can, in order to preserve the seasoning, which is the coating on the pan that preserves the metal. Maintain the seasoning with an oil that won’t go rancid. Vance likes canola oil. Store it in a climate-controlled environment to avoid condensation.
To keep safe, Vance recommends closed-toe shoes. Cooking with a Dutch oven means hot coals on the ground around your campsite, which could lead to a painful burn if you’re wearing sandals. When you’re done, remember to put the coals back in the fire ring.
“They may not be generating as much heat as they were at the start, but I guarantee if your kid steps on one bare foot they’re going to tell you that they are still generating heat,” Vance said.